By Tony Attwood
This review updated November 2019.
This is an absolutely straightforward talking blues. If lines such as
Well, I don’t know, but I’ve been told
The streets in heaven are lined with gold
I ask you how things could get much worse
If the Russians happen to get up there first
Wowee! pretty scary!
are completely familiar to you, then you know the music. What we have here is a different set of lyrics and what seems to be Dylan’s first recorded talking blues.
The regular story that circulates about the origin of this song (and I am certainly not going to contradict it) says that the New York Herald Tribune ran a story about a Father’s Day cruise on the Hudson River to Bear Mountain which went wrong because a lot of counterfeit tickets had been sold, resulting in overcrowding and ultimately the sinking of the boat.
Noel Stookey, who became part of Peter Paul and Mary, and who had become friends with Dylan, showed his new pal the report, and according to Mr Stookey, Dylan turned up the next day with the song all done and dusted.
To give a bit of context, as I understand things (not having been there) Bear Mountain is part of the Hudson Highlands within New York State, and overlooks the Hudson River. On a clear day you can see Manhattan.
The story Dylan tells is not the story told in the newspaper, but is enlarged to create more comic effect – Heylin suggests that Dylan was placing himself as a “folkie Charlie Chaplin” and it was, it seems, the song that got him noticed.
The lyrics are sung by a naive young man being sold a ticket for himself and his wife and children, thinking he was going see some bears and a mountain. He finds there are crowds of people trying to get on the boat…
Took the wife ’n’ kids down to the pier
Six thousand people there
Everybody had a ticket for the trip
“Oh well,” I said, “it’s a pretty big ship
Besides, anyway, the more the merrier”
Well, we all got on ’n’ what d’ya think
That big old boat started t’ sink
More people kept a-pilin’ on
That old ship was a-slowly goin’ down
Funny way t’ start a picnic
It’s a fairly straightforward musical satire, but for audiences who had not heard this sort of slapstick music before it clearly could have an impact, particularly I suspect, the notion that the happy group of people all going for a family day out, exhibit the traditional behaviour of people who have paid their money to have a good time, have then had a few drinks, and then get a bit miffed as things start to go awry. It is, as Heylin implies, a classic silent movie script.
Well, I soon lost track of m’ kids ’n’ wife
So many people there I never saw in m’ life
That old ship sinkin’ down in the water
Six thousand people tryin’ t’ kill each other
Dogs a-barkin’, cats a-meowin’
Women screamin’, fists a-flyin’, babies cryin’
Cops a-comin’, me a-runnin’
Maybe we just better call off the picnic
The narrator gets punched, loses consciousness and it seems loses his clothes and possessions and survives but vows never to go out on a picnic again.
Now, I don’t care just what you do
If you wanta have a picnic, that’s up t’ you
But don’t tell me about it, I don’t wanta hear it
’Cause, see, I just lost all m’ picnic spirit
Stay in m’ kitchen, have m’ own picnic . . .
In the bathroom
The twist however comes in the last verse – the coda. I call it that because one review of the song I read rather sweetly calls the penultimate verse “the codetta”, so I think I am ok calling this verse the coda – the final element in a piece of classical music that works everything through to its ultimate conclusions…
Now, it don’t seem to me quite so funny
What some people are gonna do f’r money
There’s a bran’ new gimmick every day
Just t’ take somebody’s money away
I think we oughta take some o’ these people
And put ’em on a boat, send ’em up to Bear Mountain . . .
For a picnic
That would have got the left wing audience in the folk clubs – let’s round up all the guys in these money making schemes and send them off down the river so they can fight each other.
Today the piece doesn’t seem that revolutionary, but if you can think of a time when the audience might well not have been familiar with the talking blues, and certainly hadn’t come across too many songs that poked fun at the scam merchants, (we are here in the days before the protest song was created) you can see why it would have got Bob’s career going.
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